Attorney Thomas Cox represented Atlanta and DeKalb schools in the lawsuit that led to the abolition of the state-run charter schools commission. That 2011 legal victory by school systems prompted the current campaign to change the Georgia Constitution so the state can recreate the commission and go back to approving charters over the objections of local boards of education.
A public school parent, Cox is a Harvard Law School grad who specializes in education law and policy. He is a co-founder of the Atlanta “Faithful Lawyers,” an inter-faith group that has co-sponsored continuing legal education seminars at Emory Law School, addressing issues of faith and the practice of law.
In this essay, Cox takes on the language in the charter schools amendment, which, like every other constitutional amendment on the ballot, is written to be as platitudinous as possible and provide as little detail as possible.
(That’s one reason why so many tax breaks get approved by voters in Georgia. The ballot questions are written in such congenial and broad terms that voting “No” seems the moral equivalent of pushing grandma down the stairs or running over your neighbor’s pug.)
But this amendment may go further than most in its lack of detail and honesty, according to Cox.
By Thomas A. Cox
The advocates, both in and outside the General Assembly, supporting the Charter School Constitutional Amendment have expressed confidence that Georgia citizens support the creation of a new politically appointed state-level body with the power to overrule decisions of locally elected school boards and create charter schools. It is unfortunate for Georgia voters (and the democratic process) that their confidence has not extended so far as to allow the actual issue to be placed fairly and honestly before the voters on the November ballot.
The ballot question states: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” This question bears virtually no resemblance to the contents of the proposed constitutional amendment itself. For at least three reasons, the ballot question is both inaccurate and misleading:
First, local school boards already have, and regularly exercise, the constitutional authority to approve local charter schools, and there are now well over 100 such locally approved schools operating in the state. The only plausible reason to have inserted the words “local approval” in the ballot measure is to confuse some voters into believing that, without this amendment, charter schools cannot be locally approved.
Second, the ballot measure’s language stating that these new charter schools can be approved “upon the request of local communities” implies that, before the state can approve a new charter school, there must be a demand by a significant segment (perhaps even a majority) of the residents of a “local community.” A reasonable voter would probably conclude that a community consists of residents of a local school district, or at least persons living in the targeted school attendance area.
Yet the actual language of the Amendment would permit the new appointed commission to conclude, in effect, that a single individual may request a charter, and thus presumably constitutes a “local community.” For example, under the Amendment, an executive of a charter management company, or a real estate developer seeking to profit from approval of a school to cater to residents of his planned gated community, could seek and obtain charter approval, even in the face of overwhelming opposition from local residents, voters and the elected local school board.
Third, the ballot measure is deceptive because of what it omits. What will constitute “state approval” of a charter under the Amendment will not be the approval of any elected state officials, the voters of the state, or even the State Department of Education. Instead, it will be the approval of a politically appointed commission, answerable and accountable to no one (except, perhaps indirectly, to the politicians who appoint them).
Apparently concerned that even this ballot measure language drafted by the General Assembly might not alone lure sufficient numbers of uninformed voters into casting “Yes” votes, the Governor (acting along with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House, who make up the Constitutional Amendment Publication Board) chose to add even more deceptive “preamble” language, which states that the Amendment “[p]rovides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.”
Under Georgia law, the only purpose of a preamble is to serve as “a short title or heading” that describes to voters “the substance of the proposal.” Yet nothing in the substance of the actual Amendment requires, or even mentions, either improved student achievement or parental involvement. By placing on the ballot a preamble that fails to serve its only legitimate statutory purpose, but instead recites positively charged buzzwords (who, after all, could vote against “improving student achievement” or “parental involvement”?), the Publication Board has failed the citizens of the state and has helped subvert what should be the most open and serious of processes — asking voters to decide whether to amend our state’s constitution.
It is certainly possible that a majority of Georgia voters agrees that the constitution should be amended to grant a group of unelected political appointees the authority to overturn or ignore decisions of locally elected school boards and to approve new charter schools. Because the Amendment drafters are unwilling to put this issue squarely and honestly before the voters, we are unlikely ever to know.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog